A study published in the journal Neuron , states that curiosity is beneficial for learning . According to this research, people find it easier to memorize and retain information about topics they are curious about, because this state of intrinsic motivation increases activity in the midbrain, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus (brain areas related to learning, memory and repetition of pleasurable behaviors).
Although many of us have already experienced it at some time, these findings could help scientists find new ways to improve learning and memory, and could provide new educational strategies for teachers.
The relationship between curiosity and learning is not new
That we learn more quickly about those topics that arouse our interest and curiosity is not new. Surely, when a person says “I don’t like or am not curious about what I am studying”, he or she will have difficulty in learning well. In fact, we learn much better through meaningful learning. But this research provides information about how curiosity is related to the functioning of the brain and how it affects the motivation inherent in learning.
Matthias Gruber and his collaborators carried out the research at the University of California and found that when we are curious about something, our mind not only absorbs what we are interested in, but that we also memorize the data surrounding the matter of our interest , which is initially alien to the object of curiosity. On the other hand, the researchers also concluded that the hippocampus, which helps in memory formation, becomes more active when we show more interest.
Nucleus accumbens: motivation, pleasure and learning
One area of the brain involved with motivation and repetition of pleasurable behaviors is the nucleus accumbens (which is part of the reward system). This is found in both hemispheres, and receives afferences from various brain centres related to the emotions (amygdala and hypothalamus) and the memory (emotional, procedural and declarative). In addition, it receives dopaminergic afferences from the ventral tegmental area and motor areas of the cortex. The presence of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens facilitates long-term memory and learning.
But the nucleus accumbens is also related to motivation, and curiosity causes the activation of the reward circuit (of which the nucleus accumbens is a part). Guber states: “We have shown that intrinsic motivation actually recruits the same areas of the brain that are heavily involved in tangible extrinsic motivation.
On the other hand, as other investigations had concluded in the past, in order to activate the nucleus accumbens it is necessary that the event is new and unexpected (that it does not agree with the information that we have stored in the memory). After this investigation, it seems that curiosity, which can be understood as the search for novelty or the desire to know or find out something, also activates it.
Study data and conclusions
To carry out the study, 19 students were recruited to score more than 100 questions on a trivia, indicating their degree of curiosity (from 0 to 6) and their perception of self-confidence in answering them correctly.
Then, the scientists measured each subject’s brain activity using an imaging technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Meanwhile, on a screen, each participant was shown the questions they had rated as curious or not curious, and each question took 14 seconds to appear. During this time, images of faces with a facial expression that had nothing to do with the questions appeared.
Later, the students answered these questions and, in addition, they were given a surprise test in which they had to remember the faces. The results indicated that the subjects remembered the faces in 71% of the cases in which they had qualified the question as curious. On the contrary, in the questions that had been qualified as not curious, they only remembered 54% of the faces . This did not surprise anyone.
But what did surprise the researchers is that when analyzing the face recognition test, the more curious the participants had evaluated a photo (from 0 to 6), the more faces they remembered. Moreover, even though the faces were unrelated to the questions, they memorized them even 24 hours later.
In summary, after the study, the researchers stated that:
- The state of curiosity helps to improve learning , because we memorize topics that are more interesting to us (even if they are more difficult).
- When “the state of curiosity” is activated in our brain, we are able to retain information, even from incidental material (the one we are not so curious about at first).
- The state of curiosity activates in our brain the nucleus accumbens and the midbrain (areas involved in learning, memory, motivation and reinforcement of pleasurable behaviours) and the hippocampus.
- The material we learn when our brain is activated in this way lasts much longer, resulting in meaningful learning .